The Learning Organization Revisited

Peter Senge’s best seller, “The Fifth Discipline” introduced the premise of the learning organization.  His approach was nothing short of ground breaking and gave a new focus to OD practice.  Although many saw the importance of creating a learning organization, they also found it challenging to implement.  Two professors at Harvard Business School are tacking this issue with renewed vigor. Watch their video 

take their Learning Organization Survey to test how well your organization is doing.  Their survey is also a fine example of an OD assessment tool.  If time allows, read their article which discusses their survey and its uses. What are your thoughts about learning organizations?  How might organizations reinforce the building blocks of the learning organization (supportive learning environment, learning processes and practices, and leadership that supports learning)?

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26 comments

  • Fostering an effective learning environment allows employees to offer actively engage in contributing to the overall success of the organization. In order to have a more supportive learning environment, the behavior of leadership has a direct influence on the motivation of employees. According to Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence theory, effective leaders who have developed the competencies of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management inspire their employees. Successful leaders who have the capacities of emotional intelligence are most likely to initiate open discussion with employees which creates a forum of learning, creativity and generating new ideas.

  • Having worked in environments in which a “learning environment” was both possible and impossible, I am one to say we should always try for a learning environment. The learning environment being one in which ideas are communicated openly and with respectful feedback; blame is not always thrown around, with supportive leaders and processes in place to support learning. This would be a very Utopian sort of organization, but there are certainly ones where many, if not all, do exist. I think that there may be a misconception about a blame free management style; when the first action a manager takes is to find out who rather than why, and then on what can be learned from that instance, then that is a blame-ful environment, and it festers intimidation and fear–not conducive to learning and growing staff. Management will always want to know who, but their focus should be more on the why. Now, does that mean to let repeat errors and misjudgments go un-penalized? NO, but by first asking why, and trying to fix that, then future errors may stop and right there is a learning opportunity for the organization. A business process may follow based on that mistake and how to prevent it from happening.
    When it comes down to it, if an organization wants to thrive, it needs to keep its staff satisfied with their work and what they do and how well they do it. If they provide them with the tools to learn and thrive and share, it can only be beneficial to the the bottom line and to the human capital.

  • Both speakers present very informative ideas linking learning environment to company success. In todays technology the greatest asset a company has is learning and advancing since almost any aspect of a product can be replicated by competitors. The only advantage a company has is learning and developing to stay a step ahead of the competition. While competitors desperately try to catch up with your current process or products, a company that invests in a learning environment will always be the front runner and distinguish itself from the competition. However, there is a gap between implementation of a learning environment, as the speaker noted, since it is only at the higher levels within an institution. The bulk of the focused work and where it truly matters happen down the chain at the levels of the manager. But the learning organization concept is not reaching this level thus severley limiting the entire process.

  • Eghonghon Imarenezor

    I really appreciated this video.Successful organizations are those that keep learning. An organization that keeps learning stays relevant. It seems so simple but I’ve worked in organizations and associations where that has not been the case, and their longevity is up for question. From comparing my experiences with the three building blocks, the reasons become clear; the leadership was not supportive, and because they weren’t supportive the environment was not supportive, and their practices were very questionable. Watching this video gave me an “aha” moment.

  • Freely asking questions, admitting mistakes, and expressing opinions is vital to having a learning environment. Being open and direct and communicating is really the way that an individual or an organization will grow. Unfortunately, when an error does occur, people choose to look for someone to blame rather than how a problem could be solved or could have been prevented. For me, if an error occurs in an organization, it’s never truly one persons fault. I liked how the video defined learning as not only acquiring knowledge, but being able to interpret, transfer, and modify behavior from said knowledge.

  • I agree with the comments from my fellow colleagues. It’s important for an organization to establish an anonymous reporting system for mistakes or comments on areas that need improving. This allows employees to freely speak about their ideas without worrying. Along with that, it is also important for leadership to support a blame free environment. Leaders need to show that both positive and negative feedback is welcome without threats of termination of employment. With technology on the rise, this is becoming more and more accessible for organizations to implement. Online reporting systems can make this program available to employees in many locations.

    I also agree that investing both time and resources in organizations is an important aspect of establishing a successful organization. It not only improves the work environment for employees, but it also gives a more positive experience to customers in return. This can make an organization more competitive in the growing markets of today.

  • The video by David Garvin and Amy Edmonson was much more informative than I had given it credit for. One of the most intriguing aspects was when Ms. Edmonson began speaking about how influencing change needs to start at the middle. This was a real eye-opener for me. All too often, Edmonton states, when organizational developers are brought into a company, only the CEOs or other “C” level executives are focused on. In a recent case study, this is the initial situation as well. Ms. Edmondson rightly pointed out that often the difficulties arelying in the middle. Too little support for middle-management, too little training for their subordinates. All of this can add up to an ineffective bottom level workforce, which spreads the problem to the top.

    Now for my thoughts on the evaluation tool. At first I didn’t understand what it was going to accomplish, but simply by taking the survey you really get a grasp of what this is meant for. In the beginning there are some simple statements that most people would want to be positive about, but the further you get into it the more it makes you think about real management and change decisions and how they are affecting you and your company as a whole. Anyone taking this would be forced to evaluate where they stand with the company and what changes they would like to see. I myself, while taking this, was trying to figure out if I was basing my responses off of our class, our recent case study, or my current profession. In the end I suppose mine was a combination of all three, however, for a member of a company, it would be much easier to answer specific questions that were asked.

    The results afterwards or even more astounding. Going through and truly seeing what areas you or your organization are struggling in can be a great way to begin repairing those difficulties. Mine came through with difficulties in information collection, and learning process composite. My educational career is rather stable at the moment, however I am having some difficulties in my work life. I wonder if I were to retake this test with a focus on her responses related only to my work how they would vary.

  • Very informative video about “Learning Organizations” as it ignited an even greater interest into organizational development. The various examples were great and served as a complimentary dish to the main course of information from the professors. The interviewer also asked some great open-ended questions too.

    I am an MATD major (training and development) and for the first time I am taking an OD class and I see how both disciplines, in my opinion, overlaps each other. It reminds me of two key terms I am accustomed to via professional experience, “life safety” and “security,” where one cannot exist without the other. If companies can transform itself into a continual learning organization by incorporating learning concepts and practices into their business model it will have a greater advantage over other companies. People are the valuable assets in getting jobs done, whether they built the machines to produce products faster or when personnel needs to be managed on a humanistic level. The people are the employees, stakeholders, customers and clients who all need to be valued one way or another. One of the best ways to show real appreciation towards this truth is by open-communication and open-mindfulness within the workplace.

    Learning from each other, instead of blaming each other is key. To blame is to put someone on the spot and for what? – An ill intention purpose to gain momentary recognition of some kind? In all honesty, most times when an error occurs in the workplace the “blame” is derived from many individuals in totality before the final add-on-to-the-sub-error takes place. In other words, many other smaller errors led to the final one taking place, which contributed to the final one causing the overall failure of the task.

    Get creative here and think of a “task” as a system where the screws attaching all various components were the perfect “written” procedures to apply when performing a task. Due to imperfect humans these screws got loose by someone else already and the fellow coworker or Supervisor who observed the erroneous behavior didn’t make an on the spot correction by training that worker right then and there how to correctly perform that task creating a missed learning opportunity. Eventually more and more workers caused that same screw and other screws to become loose. As the final screw became fully loose by a worker that last additional small error caused the performance of the task to “break apart” not knowing that it was already crumbling through previous errors.

    It’s like a security officer observing another security officer perform a screening procedure being performed incorrectly in-front of those who could have corrected the mistake, but did nothing and before you know it, a bad person gets pass the screening process and causes harm. Where was the on the spot correction or remedial training? The actual person who committed the action incorrectly at whatever level is just the last person who was also denied being helped out.

    • The Blame-Free society should be put into practice. Okay, so what if something major detrimental to a business or operation is committed, what then?
    • Do we still blame or reflect on the situation with corrective methods be discussed then applied in hopes of not happening again?
    • What if mistakes are made continuously from an employee?

    Well, let’s be sensible here, in any business – time is paramount – and so are employees’ emotional intelligence, therefore a constant learning organizational practice is a great addition to any business as everyone learns from each other and in turn supports each other. Only concrete changes can take fruition from a supportive environment.

    The existence of learning organizations cannot be stressed enough. The value of learning is worth multitudes of praises and practices. I am not saying a company will become a perfect one. Far from it, but what I am saying is – adding a learning organizational culture and practice within a business model can be a perfect combination for long-term success.

    Thank you,

    Sixto Lopez Jr.
    Roosevelt’s MATD graduate
    slopezjr@mail.roosevelt.edu
    sixtothepoint@yahoo.com

  • I just want to confirm that the article link does not work as a previous post stated, however, I found the link to the Harvard Business Review week article published in March 2008: https://hbr.org/2008/03/is-yours-a-learning-organization
    I like the idea of what respecting others in the workplace to create a learning environment, in my experience so far I have not seen any organization, department or team that meets or exhibits this type of thought process.

    Usually, when it comes to stimulating any type of learning it is done by self-motivated employees or individuals from the training and development department, the managers play no part in the learning process. What managers can do, as mentioned in the video, for assisting employees contributing to the learning process are not instilled in the usual organizational culture and instead, are thought of as characteristic of “weak” leadership. Giving a chance for employees to have a debate regarding ideas, policies, and procedures even during “open house” discussions that I have seen, are just opportunities for managers to identify troublemakers or squash “challenges” to the current method of “doing things” in regular organizations.

    Although I believe organizations that have this type of learning environment established, have managers who openly encourage innovation, and the dissemination of best practices will be highly productive and successful, I have not seen it yet. To do so most organizations need a change to their entire organization’s culture, to reverse the mindsets of CEOs and management staff included that believe creating a supportive learning environment in which best practices can be shared and discussion of alternative points of view are not complete wastes of time. If the organization is serious about change, and the management staff is not it is in the best interest of the organization to move forward with personnel changes and recruit leaders who are too committed to this new environment.

    I have taken the Learning Organization Survey as recommended by the authors of the article and my organization scaled highest score was in the area of “Time for reflection” at 48.6 I had five of these categories in averaging at 14.3% the others in the low twenties and thirties. This was far above what I expected to score for my organization but quite accurate in various areas.

  • I believe all organizations should strive to become a learning organization, or at the very minimum want to create an atmosphere that supports and encourages continued learning. Although, I am not sure I agree with the speaker when she commented that a manager can incorporate their department into a learning organization if the balance of the organization does not share that philosophy. In order to be truly successful there would need to be a certain level of trust and that may be hard to achieve if the other units within an organization are not on the same page.

  • krubinszymanski

    There are several ways in which organizations can reinforce and support the building blocks of their learning environments. They can do so through their employee value proposition statement by way of identifying a series of benefit and value statements that will directly influence and impact the staff’s behaviors as well as current and future performance.

    In addition, companies that incorporate learning organizations into its business model makes a long-term investment in its human capital. People drive strategic growth, carry the vision/mission, and positively engage with its corporate culture. Everyone benefits from a learning organization, both the internal customers (staff) and external customers (clients). As stated by Amy Edmondson and David Garvin “Organizations must learn ahead of its competition to get ahead and stay ahead. The rate of learning must be greater than the rate of change, otherwise, you will fall behind.”

    Also, learning process and practice concepts not only be discussed and agreed upon at the C-level but also be clear and concrete, defined and executed at the mid-tier level of management. The question that needs to be answered is “What do I need to do to have staff learn more readily (timing, accessibility, frequency, etc.)?”,

    Last, leadership at all levels within a company must support and follow agreed upon processes and practices within a learning organization. The psychological safety of staff is a must and can’t be subject to compromise. It will absorb any assumed risk that the staff may be directly or indirectly exposed to when areas of confidentiality come into question and provide the foundation for blame-free reporting.

  • The video discussed many key features of OD and Learning Organizations that can be applied to a number of different settings. Through my personal experience in health care, I agree with stressing the importance of being forward and being direct when it comes to interpersonal communications. As Amy Edmondson stated in the video, its not necessarily about being “nice”, instead its about being open to change and understand ways to make the changes. In addition, the process of blame-free reporting in hospitals was a turning point in the way that it allowed employees to feel safe and in the way that managers were able to pin point areas that required attention.

  • What an informational video; I have tried a couple of times over the course of the week and could not open the article referenced.

    To reinforce the building blocks of a learning organization leaders need to model the behaviors they want to see from staff. A supportive environment where leaders invite input, ask questions and allow people to make mistakes without fear. Companies must set up concrete processes and procedures that allow people to share knowledge but also take time to reflect and continually improve.

    The following article discusses continuous learning in the public sector: http://icma.org/en/icma/knowledge_network/blogs/blogpost/4560/Nine_Leadership_Strategies_for_Continuous_Learning_in_Local_Government

  • Watching the video for a second time, you definitely are able to retain more information on learning development. I like how the professor indicates when a company invests in their employees to continue to learn and transform through research and work. Another great point they address is change behaviors and a great way to understand this method is through complexity theories. Last point made was very interesting regarding acquiring knowledge it will help an organization to continue and grow in the rapid change environment.

  • I believe that learning organizations allow for the most open and successful environments. A learning environment within a pharmacy is what we call a ‘just culture’. This concept runs parallel with a ‘blame free society’. Instead of blaming and reprimanding employees, a just culture overlooks who made the mistake and focuses on how we can learn from the mistake to avoid further occurrences. This encourages reporting of errors and diminishes the fear of taking the blame.

    This is nice article I found that incorporates this OD subject into pharmacy

    http://drugtopics.modernmedicine.com/drug-topics/content/tags/continuing-quality-improvement/ethics-just-culture

  • I think the quote that struck me the most from the video was “..the rate at which an organization learns may well become the only sustainable competitive advantage.” And it rings very true. This quote ascribes to the notion that modern organizations need to be incredibly nimble in order to stay competitive. Learning quickly what works and what doesn’t is key to keeping pace. This goes against many more traditional philosophies that purport ‘seeing a strategy through’. In this age where a singular bad customer experience can go viral, no company has the luxury of espousing the ‘wait and see’ attitude.

    • You make a great point. Instead of being hung up on mistakes that are made and the amount of error occurring, the key to staying in the game is learning quickly and moving forward. As with anything in life, the key to success is brushing off your shoulders and moving on.

  • The idea of Blame Free Reporting I see everyday at work, and we have learned about in school. In the hospital setting, we have something called SERS- Safety Event Reporting. It is a hospital-wide system in which any employee can report anonymously and misdoings or errors seen in the hospital setting. I think this is a really good idea, because many people are worried about getting into trouble if they use their name in a submission like this. This keeps their identity anonymous, but also helps out the hospital by allowing them to correct any errors. The people who use SERS to report are free of penalty and help to keep the hospital a safe place. As mentioned in the video, this Blame Free Reporting is an excellent way that staff can be open and straightforward in the workplace, and helps to create a supportive environment.

  • As some of the other comments have stated, I agree that one of the most important and interesting parts of a learning organization is a “blame free society” and being able to share your thoughts and opinions. It seems that without these, there is much less input from those who know the company best and the whole idea of “learning” is lost. As mentioned in the video, organizations who don’t value thought and opinion sharing will fall behind and likely end up copying things that effective learning organizations are doing.

  • “Leadership that fosters and inspires the learning process” This is the most important part of a learning organization in my opinion. If you work with a company that values learning your company can grow and be successful. It takes leadership buy in because with out it the group as a whole will not follow the learning culture. The company as a whole needs to value learning as a whole.
    They talk about what managers can do to help become a learning culture. They said that managers need to be open for their people to ask questions and take risks that can help them grow.

    This was a great video that I think most managers should watch and help their culture become a learning organization.

  • I agree with the Harvard Business Professors when they stated that investing time and resources into learning allows the organization to move ahead of its competitors. I strongly believe in developing a learning organization in order for employees to gain knowledge and be successful. Like they mentioned in the video, learning organizations require open and honest communication, supportive leaders, and time to reflect on learning in order to be effective. I took the survey to see where my organization fell on the spectrum of learning organizations. My organization’s two areas of strength are Psychological Safety (82.9) and Education and Training (83.3). The area that needs improvement is Appreciation of Differences. This is a valuable tool for an employee, leader, manager, or CEO to use to gauge the effectiveness of their organization. Once the areas of improvement are identified, organizations can reinforce learning by implementing training programs and meetings, encouraging open discussion, starting a “no-blame” system similar to the one mentioned in the video, and providing opportunities to further learning.

  • Jarvis Cook – I really enjoyed the video, it had some great content and valid points on how OD is viewed and the changes associated in learning about an organization. I really liked how the two professors from Harvard explain the concept on OD, it also gave me a better understanding as well. They also pointed out how the cause and effect impacts an organization on many levels. It’s important to be in a position from a competitive edge perspective and show valid reasons for change. I’m taking a course this summer TRDV 435 OD, a lot of what they shared from the video we have covered and will cover later in the semester. One of the things they shared was Organization behavior which is one of the Academy of Management Competency Model, the two professors shared about leadership, goal setting and ethics which are very important to an organization success.
    I also took the Learning Organizational Survey; I was amazed on the results from my submission. It showed how my organization scored based on my answers and responses. On an average my organization scored in the 52% range on the majority of the questions and on a few items they scored above 82%. This survey showed me areas of improvement and concerns my organization need to address and review to make changes. The areas where my organization scored well were for training and career development/advancement.
    Again, I like the video it helped close some different perceptions I had about OD and the message was able to give me more clarity.

  • I enjoyed watching this video a lot. This video had a great deal to do with my Adult Learning Theory and Application course I am taking this summer at Roosevelt University. As an organization I do feel that it is extremely important to be a learning organization, primarily do to the challenges businesses face to keep their competitive edge. If managers took the initiative and practiced these competencies used in organization development and applied them to their everyday practices with their teams the results would be remarkable within the company. For my undergraduate degree in Organization Management, we had to read some chapters in the book “Winning” by Jack Welch and everything in the chapters were concepts we could apply to our everyday lives. Managers that want to be successful will adhere to concepts like being straightforward and open with their team. This approach is extremely inviting but, in reality it takes a great deal to achieve these results because people have to change how they think and value their team as being a crucial element in the organization. I leave you with this quote in one of my favorite movie’s Remember the Titans “Attitude is a reflection of its leadership”. In essence this is how change begins and learning takes place.

  • I love the idea of an organization being a learning organization, however I really haven’t experienced it broadly in the real world. I think it is a very risky proposition for line managers to try and model this vulnerable, open, honest approach with their team if the larger organization isn’t doing it. Also, the idea of blame free reporting is awesome and I’d love to get more information on how organizations have done this successfully. I really do agree with the approach and with the concept that you have to have the real conversations to make things better and keep the organization growing. Ive seen things done in pockets as part of leadership development programs, but it didn’t seem to stick as an ongoing approach to how the business is run. I’m going to read up on how G.E. did this as I’m intrigued and want to learn more. Thanks!

    • Blame-free reporting is very common in healthcare nowadays. Whenever an error occurs it should be reported with great detail in the computer system. The report is then evaluated and looked in to more deeply to try to discover why the error occurred. This review often sheds light on what improvements need to be made in the system. Often, little changes even in system design prevent the reoccurrence of these errors in the future. For example, in the pharmacy errors can occur in numerous differ steps of the process from physician prescription entry to verification and dispensing. There are numerous drugs that look and sound alike and were easily confused leading to wrong medications being dispensed to patients. Companies are now able to look at these errors and created a list of look-alike sound-alike drugs. System updates now warn the team with a pop-up during prescription entry of any of these drugs. The individual entering or checking the prescription then double checks more carefully to make sure an error is not made.

      • I was just about to comment and say the same thing, the first thought that popped into my head was the notion of the “blame free society” that we discussed in our pharmacy classes. I personally think this way of reporting has been, and is, very beneficial. It provides us with more accurate information in regards to various topics (including adverse events and how they came about for example). People are much more open to providing more detailed information as they know they will not have to fear loosing their jobs in the majority of instances. I believe blame free reporting would be beneficial in all aspects of any business. Depending on the situation and how it occurred there would most likely be exceptions made however, and rightfully so, but otherwise I believe many businesses would benefit as they would be able to obtain more accurate data and be able to figure out what needs to be improved.

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